Monday, August 17, 2015

Amazon and Leadership

A great deal has been written about the work environment at Amazon. The reason for this attention is that there is something unique going on there. I was only at Amazon for 19 months, but I learned a great deal that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Before I get to my feelings about my time at Amazon, I want to set the stage a bit.

First off, I love my current job at Snowflake Computing and am very grateful for the opportunity to work with the incredible team they have put together. In fact, I feel that my experience at Amazon helped set me up for success in this role.  I am passionate about the value of data in making business decisions and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to share that passion in my daily work.

Second, I feel like I need to explain my views on the modern workforce in order to give context to my feeling about Amazon and what they are doing. In my opinion, two primary forces are pulling today’s workforce in opposite directions. What I am going to say may be politically incorrect and offend some people, but I am going to try to leave the political implications out. I feel that the current environment has a great deal to do with the way that Amazon has developed its methods for teaching leadership.

On one hand, people have never felt more entitled than today. I may be getting old, but I am amazed by what people expect to be given just for showing up to work. Very few in the American technology workforce have ever known true scarcity, and as a result there are many who lack a sense of urgency about their careers. This attitude is not entirely negative. A career is only part of the life we lead, and the surplus energy can be directed into many good endeavors. However it does create a challenge for managers who are learning to deal with employees who they find difficult to motivate or direct. Perks are often thrown at employees in the hopes of luring top talent to a company and holding on to the talented workers they have.

On the other hand, the entrepreneurial spirit has never been more prevalent. Many in the workforce are driven by an inner need to succeed and are finding innovative ways to do so. Venture capital has added tremendous fuel to the fire, funding the movement and profiting greatly from the successes. Caution has been thrown to the wind in pursuit of bigger ideas, and while their have been a significant number of failures, many positive innovations have resulted. No one could have predicted how this movement has reshaped corporate America as well as our everyday lives.

In this complex environment, Amazon has thrived by adapting and finding a way to promote passion and innovation throughout the company. Still, working at Amazon is not for everyone, as evidenced by a high turnover rate and a far from stellar ratings on services such a Glassdoor. I personally loved working at Amazon, and feel strongly that it has changed me in ways that will benefit me for years to come. Still, I struggled with a number of the issues that have caused others to leave with hard feelings for the company.

For the sake of transparency, I should add that I accepted another job after 19 months at Amazon because I was offered an amazing opportunity. I was mostly happy during my time there, but I will admit that I spoke with a number of recruiters about other positions. I believe in keeping my options open and ultimately chose to take advantage of a great opportunity when it was presented to me. Though I was only at Amazon a relatively short time, the lessons I learned will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Very few things in life push us to truly excel, to reach beyond what we think we are capable of and acheive our full potential. Excellence requires extraordinary effort to achieve and maintain, along with regular self-analysis to determine areas for improvement. One very real challenge in pushing ourselves to be our best is the struggle to accept the value of who we are today while acknowledging that we can become better. Environments that are designed to promote high achievement often become stressful when we fall short of the new standards we have set for ourselves or that others have set for us.

Many have pointed out that our work environment is most strongly impacted by those with whom we interact on a daily basis. As a result, employees of a single corporation can have vastly different experiences based on the teams within which they operate. I have had the great fortune in my career of working in some great teams. The best teams motivate one another by example, with everyone working hard together to achieve success. The true challenge for upper management in a large organization is trying to ensure that the teams they manage are creating this type of environment.

Amazon’s management principles are one way to create a consistent environment throughout a huge organization. When properly applied they create a demanding but fair environment that rewards effort and encourages innovation. This environment permeates the entire organization at Amazon, all the way up to the executives. It can empower employees by offering them a chance to make a difference in a major corporation.

Working in data, I was used to being asked to provide reports to show decision makers the numbers around their decisions. At Amazon I was asked to help make decisions by providing not just the numbers, but also my insights into the numbers. Instead of just learning how to work with the data, I was encouraged to learn the business and given the opportunity to leverage my knowledge in new and exciting ways. I rarely felt pressured, outside of the pressure I put on myself to excel. I went from being satisfied as an individual contributor to wanting to lead.

I will admit that Amazon faces a number of challenges as it pushes forward. The management principles are not always consistently applied and some teams have created openly hostile environments. While I never felt that hostility within the groups where I worked, I will admit that my experience with managers was a bit uneven. The churn of the organization resulted in me having 6 managers during my time at Amazon. This happened even though I never changed roles. Some of them were great managers who nurtured my skills and encouraged me to grow. I still look up to them and am grateful for their influence. Others were honestly too busy to help me in a meaningful way. While some were more effective than others, all were friendly and none ever belittled me or put undue pressure on me. To be honest, had I had more consistent management I likely never would have considered career opportunities outside of Amazon.

An organization growing as fast as Amazon is today is bound to have some rough spots and uneven management. I never witnessed anything cruel or demeaning in any way. I have spoken to a few employees, and a few spouses of employees, who found the grind at Amazon did not suit them. That is not unusual for a place that employs thousands of workers. I have worked in dysfunctional organizations before and my time at Amazon was nothing like that. I worked with talented and driven individuals on key projects that resulted in a number of successes. I made good friends and have many fond memories.

As a result of my time at Amazon, I feel that I have internalized the spirit of the management principles. Passion for your work is very liberating, even when it borders on obsession. I will admit that the ideas promoted within Amazon do not fit everyone. Not in a world where we enjoy great diversity. However they have helped me to become more than I previously thought I could be and opened my mind to new possibilities.

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